Twenty firefighters spent Wednesday morning setting fires and containing them, part of the largest live-training exercise ever held on the American River Parkway, fire officials said.
Behind Costco and Cal Expo, the small brush fires sent plumes of smoke billowing into the air near bustling commuter traffic on Interstate 80. Sacramento Fire Department officials say the hands-on training will provide invaluable experience to firefighters who are readying for another year of drought conditions.
“We anticipate a busy fire season like last year,” said Roberto Padilla, a spokesman and firefighter with the Sacramento Fire Department.
Nearly 500 firefighters from across the region are expected to participate in the exercises over the next month. The training burns will encompass between 60 to 100 acres when the program finishes, according to Padilla.
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Firefighters, he said, have varying levels of experience and training is critical to test their readiness.
“We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Padilla said.
The training on Wednesday drew participants from agencies including the West Sacramento, Davis and Cosumnes fire departments. The Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks also participated because it manages the 23-mile parkway and usually is the first to respond in emergencies.
“Our rangers know the property (like) the back of their hand,” said Michael Doane, chief ranger with the county. “They have intimate knowledge of the area and can help protect sensitive habitats and wildlife during these exercises.”
But the burns could damage wildlife and habitats, said Stephen Green, president of Save the American River Association.
“We’re concerned about whether it gets out of control,” he said.
Padilla emphasized that the training burns are being conducted in a highly controlled environment with multiple precautions in place to end the exercise if necessary.
Wednesday’s event comes after a two-alarm grass fire ignited along Interstate 5 on Monday, forcing the temporary closure of an offramp at Richards Boulevard. Sacramento police arrested David Cove, 46, on suspicion of arson and possessing drugs.
Fire officials believe most of the fires on American River Parkway are due to human activity, mostly from illegal homeless encampments.
Over the past year, county officials have tightened control over open flames on the parkway, most notably with the Board of Supervisors imposing emergency restrictions on smoking and barbecuing.
Firefighters on Wednesday were not far from the site of a July 4, 2014, fire that charred 160 acres behind Cal Expo.
That blaze burned for several hours, threatened buildings and almost caused the cancellation of the annual Fourth of July fireworks show. It also damaged 10 cars and forced the evacuation of the Raging Waters park and postponement of a Sacramento Republic FC soccer game.